Nature (Reino Unido)

High hopes for Brazilian science

Publicado em 09 junho 2010

Por Anna Petherick

As President Lula prepares to leave office, researchers expect that innovation will invigorate the economy.

It is rare that a head of state ends a second term with approval ratings of around 80%. But when Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took to the stage last month at a science-policy conference, his popularity was clear: more than 3,000 scientists, administrators and industrialists stood to applaud him and to cheer his science minister of five years, Sérgio Rezende.

With a government convinced that science is an essential part of a growing economy, Brazilian researchers have never known better times, and the 4th National Conference on Science, Technology and Innovation in Brasilia on 26–28 May was brimming with optimism for an even sunnier future. At the conference, Lula signed a series of bills that will help to sustain his legacy of science investment after he and Rezende leave office on 1 January 2011. The bills, if enacted by the National Congress, will increase funding for postdocs and establish three new biodiversity research centres, with the overall goal being to further reduce the country's brain drain and perhaps even reverse it.

The conference will deliver a consensus statement from Brazil's top scientific brass on where its research programme should focus over the next decade. The document is likely to be influential, says Luiz Davidovich, a director of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "The conference is the first time that those at the heart of science, and those tangentially involved, have all been brought together — and at a point when things are really taking off," adds Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the scientific director of FAPESP, São Paulo's state research foundation. The consensus statement, due to be published in two months' time, will be sent to all of the presidential candidates.

One prominent suggestion expected to be in the statement is the fostering of centres of excellence. "We need to look after our Pelés as well as build more football pitches," says de Brito Cruz. "The current focus of funding is on new centres, but there is no specific programme to fund research stars." Another proposal is to provide more incentives for multinational companies to conduct research and development in Brazil.

These policies would build on a well-funded foundation. The Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology says that after Lula took office in 2003, total public and commercial funding for science and technology soared from 21.4 billion reais (US$11.4 billion) to 43.1 billion reais in 2008 (or from 1.26% to 1.43% of Brazil's growing gross domestic product; GDP) — due in part to Lula, and to policies implemented by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Publications by Brazilians in peer-reviewed science journals have leapt from 14,237 in 2003 to 30,415 in 2008, according to data analysts Thomson Reuters.

This is impressive not only in the context of Latin America but also compared with Russia, India and China, for example. In 2000, Brazil generated 43% of Latin America's peer-reviewed publications. Scientific output has since improved across the region, but in 2008, Brazilian publications made up 55% of the total. Brazil has particular strengths in agricultural science; for example, in 2000, a consortium based in São Paulo became the first in the world to sequence the genome of a plant pathogen, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which destroys citrus crops.

Brazil spends significantly more per researcher than China or Russia, according to its science ministry. "I believe we have reached a point where the sector will grow organically," says Rezende. "So the next person in charge will not have to do much."

Science is also doing well at the level of individual states, which provide a significant source of public funding, although efforts to boost science are patchy. Many states are looking to emulate wealthy São Paulo, which has the strongest scientific tradition. "There is an article from 1947 in the constitution of the state of São Paulo," explains de Brito Cruz. "It says that 1% of all revenues of the state go towards research. No other science-funding agency in possibly the whole world has that kind of financial security and autonomy [from the federal government]."

The benefits of having significant funding separate from federal sources were felt most keenly in the 1990s, when Brazil's government struggled with economic stresses such as hyperinflation. Science funding dried up elsewhere in the country, but researchers in São Paulo experienced much less disruption. Recently, other states have copied this legislation. In addition, São Paulo's three large state universities receive 9.57% of the state's income from its lucrative sales tax, giving them a unique boost.

But even in São Paulo, the growth in published research has not been matched by growth in patented research, which is crucial if science is to invigorate the economy and provide a better quality of life for Brazil's 193 million inhabitants. Most scientists at the May conference agreed that solving this problem is probably the biggest challenge facing Brazilian science.

Early in its tenure, Lula's administration made it legal for the government to fund research by private companies, and afforded tax breaks to firms that invest in innovation. But the number of patented inventions coming out of Brazil has risen only slightly since these measures were passed. "The problem is that company directors have the option of putting money in the hands of their heads of finance to generate a return in the financial markets, or in those of their head of research and development, which is risky and expensive," says Eduardo Viotti of Columbia University in New York, who advises the Brazilian senate on science policy. "In the past, at least, it has seemed less risky to them to bet on the financial markets."

Commercial research and development is being boosted by the discovery in 2007 of large oil deposits off the coast of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. When oil does start flowing, Lula has promised that a proportion of the riches will be siphoned towards science. The exact percentage is still being debated, but it will be set before Lula and Rezende leave office.

The chances are good that scientists will get much of what they ask for on their consensus wishlist, even after Lula's departure. The frontrunners in October's presidential election are José Serra, a former governor of science-friendly São Paulo, and Lula's former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, who is backed by Lula and is expected to continue his policies. These may include his plan to raise science spending to 2% of GDP by 2020.